By Fiona Sims
Main pic: Crispy corn talo, heritage tomatoes, fresh herbs at Eneko at One Aldywich
I’ll never forget my first visit to San Sebastian. It was an assignment over a decade ago to interview three Michelin-starred chef Martin Berasategui. He talked with such passion about his native Basque country and the ingredients it produces that I mentally beat myself up for not visiting earlier. Combine that with a meal at the other three Michelin-starred Basque powerhouse Arzak, and an eye-popping tour through San Sebastian’s bars in search of the best pintxos and that epiphanous trip left an indelible mark.
I was thinking about it as I munched on a lettuce at Sagardi in London. The newly opened Basque-themed restaurant in Shoreditch managed to transport me right back to that elegant northern Spanish coastal city in one crunch. Not just any lettuce, plainly, but Tudela lettuce hearts dressed in a sharp vinaigrette with a scattering of spring onions. Tudela lettuce from the Basque-stronghold Navarra region of Spain even has its own designation of origin, and Sagardi jet it in daily from San Sebastian, along with a whole bunch of other stuff - to hell with the carbon footprint.
The simply titled ‘heirloom tomato salad’, stopped me in my tracks too. Just a plate of (room temperature – top marks) tomatoes, skinned, roughly chopped and dressed with a little oil and seasoned with sea salt and a pinch of finely chopped guindilla peppers. Apparently the tomatoes are a Basque speciality, too – they had certainly been basking in the sun, if you can excuse the pun.
It’s a perfect match for the perky Txakoli served from a height, as tradition dictates, our (Basque) sommelier not spilling a drop. Txakoli is the perfect Indian summer white - crisp, fresh, and minerally thanks to the Ondarribi Zuri grapes’ proximity to the Cantabrian Sea. We drank one from Itsas Mendi (£7 a glass/£33 a bottle).
And I haven’t even got to the meat yet – the restaurant’s raison d’être. There’s no mistaking the seriousness of the sourcing as soon as you step in through the door. Walk past whole carcasses ageing gently behind glass and you get to the vast wood-fired grill (they use oak, in case you’re interested).
This is Sagardi’s USP and the secret to its success - bone-in meat from old cattle. There are a number of Sagardi branches in Spain, from Barcelona to Madrid (though not in Basque country, interestingly), plus one in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Sagardi in London is the first in Europe outside Spain.
The Basques certainly know how to grill, and I’m not at all surprised when the cheapest cut we order to share (it’s all about sharing here), £42 for the 700g Txuleton Vaca ‘Ciderhouse’, translation: a six year old former dairy cow, arrives with an impressive char, crunchy with salt, the bone taking centre stage. The meat, unsurprisingly, melts in the mouth.
Grilling seems to be a thing in London right now. Great Basque cooking too, evidently, as London celebrates another Basque newcomer – Eneko at One Aldwych.
Located in the plush One Aldwych hotel on The Strand, this is the first outpost outside his native Basque country for three Michelin-starred chef Eneko Atxa. His Azurmendi restaurant in Bilbao is positioned at No.16 in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants.
Eneko at One Aldwych is Atxa’s idea of relaxed and informal (says the press release). In reality, it’s a glamorous dining room with beautifully presented food at surprisingly reasonable prices.
I’ll be back for the ‘Txerri Boda Pork Festival’ (£12), a pig lover’s bento box of porky delights, from a chorizo and sweetbread patty in a ‘milk bun’, to suckling pig in tempura, and a mouthful of tender braised pig cheek.
And for the hake (£15), Atxa’s Basque-style take on fish and chips - a feather light, crunchy tempura coat wrapping pearly-fresh fish, topped with a parsley emulsion, sitting on a multi-layered red pepper sauce (a piperade that’s been slow-cooked for two days).
And I’ll be back for the pork (£17), Iberico presa roasted pink with a wheat and chickpea sauce, and a garlic cream. We finished with a torrija that his grandma would be proud of. It’s no wonder that legendary chef Pierre Koffmann told me recently that he wants to retire to the Basque Country.
It’s difficult. We sympathise. Despite being an entirely different shape and size we have an uncanny ability to turn up in the same outfit (usually black) and order the same dishes. We both wear glasses, swathe ourselves in scarves and fancy Daniel Craig.
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© 2015-18 Fiona Beckett & Fiona Sims (the2fionas.com), photography © Gary Latham, website by Scend